Religion Through Love's Eyes
|Ola Mohamed is a Senior at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.
Religion through Love’s Eyes
My first friend from another faith was Rebecca Stein. I met her in elementary school when I lived in Staten Island, NY. I had recently moved to the U.S. with my family and I was extremely shy. I do not remember exactly how Rebecca and I met, but we became fast friends. Neither of us knew the other's religion and the issue never really came up until we invited each other to our respective homes. Rebecca was Jewish, and I was Muslim. Both of our parents, however, were very open to us being friends, but our friendship had its share of uneasy moments.
I remember one day I was supposed to go the Rebecca's house after school. Our plans changed when Rebecca's grandmother came to visit. Rebecca explained to me that her grandmother did not want her to be friends with me because I was Muslim and Muslims were killing Jews in other parts of the world. That was my earliest introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though I did not know what Rebecca's grandmother was referring to at the time.
The prejudice went both ways. When I casually mentioned to my cousins back in Egypt that I had a Jewish friend in the U.S., they were shocked. How could I be friends with someone who supports a state that went to war with my homeland twice? Every American Jew, they assumed, must support Israel and Israel was at war with Egypt as recently as 1973. They were not against Judaism, but they were vehemently against Israel and Jews who supported its policies. The faith divide is not a local phenomenon; it’s global and sometimes very politically-infused.
Our friendship was enduring, however. In third grade, we had to do a presentation on a faith other than our own. Rebecca presented on Islam and I presented on Judaism. When I moved to Raleigh, NC in 1996, I continued to exchange letters with Rebecca for several years, and I still have all of our letters.
Twelve years later I sat in a circle of female Muslim and Jewish college students at the NC Hillel house on the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill eating M&Ms and sharing stories of woman heroes in our lives. My mother. My grandmother. My professor. My sister. My friend. My aunt. Each of us shared her story of inspiration. Most of the time we laughed, but there were moments of silent and deep reflection. If you were a bird looking down at us through the moon roof, we would look like an odd bunch, but if you were an ant treading the walls of the building and just heard our voices, we would sound like any other group of ridiculous college friends. Every year, girls from the UNC Muslim Students Association join the NC Hillel girls for the celebration of Rosh Chodesh—which marks the head of the month for Jews.
Sometimes I wonder, if I had never been friends with Rebecca in New York, would I have ever gone to the Rosh Chodesh event with Hillel as a college freshman at UNC? Our childhood memories and relationships profoundly influence our perceptions of others. The beauty of personal relationships is that they are often times more powerful than media images. Even though the media is often telling me that, as a Muslim, I shouldn’t be on good terms with people of the Jewish faith, my personal childhood friendship with Rebecca blatantly challenges this idea. We can hold on to our respective religious identities and traditions while embracing the existence of others. We should seek mutual respect and reverence for religious pluralism in our communities, not merely tolerance, and when it involves M&Ms, all the better!